Judges 2:6-19: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?

Illustration about "the" place to live: NY10021 (The Times, January 2000)

In the second Millennium BC, the place to live was called Palestine. The estate agents described it as a land flowing with milk and honey. After 400 years in Egypt and another 70 wandering around in the desert, the Jews were keen to get their hands on the promised land. They would literally kill for it.

They promised God and Joshua everything under the sun if they could just get their hands on it. On our journey through the Old Testament we have arrived in the promised land. In case you were not with us in the Autumn, a word of explanation. For many people the Old Testament is a closed book, rarely read, even less understood. This series on Sunday mornings is intended to show how important the Old Testament is in making sense of our faith in Jesus Christ. God's rescue mission of planet earth began not at Bethlehem or even Calvary but way back in the Garden of Eden.

In the Autumn we took our first few steps in that journey as we traced the development of that plan through the pages of God's Word from Genesis to Joshua. Today we find ourselves in the Promised Land, wondering if it really ever did flow with milk and honey.

So where does the Book of Judges fit into this story line? The title describes the leaders Israel had from the time of the elders who outlived Joshua until the time of the monarchy. Their purpose is best expressed in 2:16: "Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of . . . raiders." Since it was God who permitted the oppressions and raised up deliverers, he himself was Israel's ultimate Judge and Deliverer.

The book of Judges characterizes the life of Israel in the promised land from the death of Joshua to the rise of the monarchy. On the one hand, it is an account of frequent apostasy, provoking divine chastening. On the other hand, it tells of urgent appeals to God in times of crisis, moving the Lord to raise up leaders (judges) through whom he throws off foreign oppressors and restores the land to peace.

After Israel was established in the promised land through the ministry of Joshua, her pilgrimage ended. Many of the covenant promises God had given to the patriarchs in Canaan and to the fathers in the desert had now been fulfilled. The Lord's land, where Israel was to enter into rest, lay under her feet; it remained only for her to occupy it, to displace the Canaanites and to cleanse it of paganism. The time had come for Israel to demonstrate God's rule on earth.

But in Canaan Israel was having too much fun. They quickly forgot the acts of God that had given her birth and had established her in the land. Consequently she lost sight of her unique identity as God's people, chosen and called to be a light to the other nations. She settled down and began to find the life style of the local people attractive. Progressively they substituted Canannite morals, gods, and religious beliefs in place of the one true God.

Throughout Judges the fundamental issue is the lordship of God in Israel--i.e., Israel's acknowledgment of and loyalty to his rule. His kingship over Israel had been uniquely established by the covenant at Sinai (Ex 19-24), which was later renewed by Moses on the plains of Moab (Dt 29) and by Joshua at Shechem (Jos 24). The author of Judges accuses Israel of having rejected the kingship of the Lord again and again. She stopped fighting the Lord's battles, turned to the gods of Canaan to secure the blessings of family, flocks and fields, and abandons God's laws for daily living.

The recurring lament, and indictment, of Judges is this: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Remarkably descriptive of our society as well. The Lord had to use foreign oppression to chasten his people--thereby implementing the covenant curses (see Lev 26:14-45; Dt 28:15-68)--and raise up deliverers when his people cried out to him to teach them the most basic of principles. I'd like us to notice four brief principles that typify Israel's experience in the promised land. If we learn from them we are less likely to repeat them.

1. They forgot what the Lord had done (2:6-10)

At that point in Israel's history, Joshua stood next to Moses as a great hero, and yet the new generation didn't recognize who he was or what he had done. In his popular novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Once they got in control of the present, both Hitler and Stalin rewrote past history so they could control future events; and for a time it worked. The lesson? - Forget history and you will repeat it. That's why the most important gift we could give you at the beginning of this year is what? A simple Bible reading plan. Remember or like Israel, you will forget what the Lord has done.

2. They forsook what the Lord had said (2:11-13)
Had they remembered Joshua, they would have known his "farewell speeches" given to the leaders and the people of Israel (Josh. 23—24). Had they known those speeches, they would have known the Law of Moses; for in his final messages, Joshua emphasized the covenant God had made with Israel and the responsibility Israel had to keep it. When you forget the Word of God, you are in danger of forsaking the God of the Word, which explains why Israel turned to the vile and vicious worship of Baal. Its one thing to read and understand God's word, its another thing to live it, to apply it, to keep it. This year, please don't forget what the Lord has done and don't forsake what the Lord has said.

3. They forfeited what the Lord had promised (2:14-15)
When they went out to fight their enemies, Israel was defeated, because the Lord wasn't with them. This is precisely what Moses had said would happen (Deut. 28:25-26); but that isn't all: Israel's enemies eventually became their masters! God permitted one nation after another to invade the Promised Land and enslave His people, making life so miserable for them that they cried out for help. Had the Jews obeyed the Lord, their armies would have been victorious; but left to themselves, they were defeated and humiliated. They forgot what the Lord had done, they forsook what the Lord had said and so they forfeited what the Lord had promised. For the next 300 years,

4. They repeatedly failed to learn from what the Lord did (2:16-23)

Whenever Israel turned away from the Lord to worship idols, He chastened them severely; and when in their misery they turned back to Him, He liberated them. But just as soon as they were free and their situation was comfortable again, Israel went right back into the same old sins. "And the Children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord. . . . Therefore the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and He sold them into the hand of . . ." is the often repeated statement that records the sad cyclical nature of Israel's sins. The people wasted their suffering. They didn't learn the lessons God wanted them to learn and profit from His chastening. God delivered His people by raising up judges, who defeated the enemy and set Israel free, but as soon as they were free they turned their backs on God again. The Book of Judges is the inspired record of Israel's failures and God's faithfulness. But if we study this book only as past history, we'll miss the message completely.

This book is about God's people today. This book is for God's people today. Lets try and apply the lesson. If the Promised Land was the place to aspire to live in the 2nd millennium BC, if the place to aspire to in the United States today is NY10021, where is the place people aspire to in Britain? Where is the land flowing with milk and honey? A land flowing with golf courses and designer clothes shops? A land flowing with silicon chip suppliers with quick access to international destinations, the world's money markets and good schools?

Perhaps its Virginia Water. To many people, to live in leafy Surrey would be heaven on earth. The lesson of Judges is this. It isn't or won't be if you don't put God first. And when you do, where ever you live can become a land flowing with milk and honey. Fulfilment will not be found in aspiring to the life style or aping social mores of the locals - here any more than it did in Canaan. With any life style there are costs and the people of Surrey, as you know only too well, pay a high price for theirs. Perhaps, with their children in mind, like the Israelites, a price too high.

The cycle of disobedience, discipline, despair, and deliverance is seen today whenever people turn away from God and His Word and go their own way. The sin in our lives that we fail to conquer will eventually conquer us. The people of Israel found themselves enslaved to one pagan nation after another as the Lord kept His word and chastened His people. So will we unless we break free of that spiral and learn the lesson God intends. The mistake many people make today is to believe life will go on forever. To believe they can enjoy God's good gifts without saying thank you. To believe they will not be held accountable. To believe like Alice in Wonderland that cancer only affects other people, that shares will never go down in value, that house prices will keep in line with inflation, that equities will give a guaranteed income.

That moving into a bigger house with a wider entrance in a smarter road, with a better car and a newer wife will make them happier. Most people are too busy trying to get into their designer land flowing with milk and honey that they forget who it is who has provided it and so they never enjoy life the way God intends. They forget to put God first in everything and so fail to enjoy the blessings God intends - a clean slate for the past, a clear conscience in the present and a secure future in eternity.

Some words from the New Testament, looking back to these stories in Judges speak to us now. With Israel's experiences in the promised land in mind,

"It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today..., "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." (Hebrews 4:6)

Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-30)

I am grateful to Warren Wersbie, Dale Ralph Davis and Michael Wilcox for material drawn from their commentaries on Judges for this sermon.